Birdwatchers & Birdbrains

A single, accidental exposure to birding proves to be, if not fatal exactly, then at least decisive. Hooked!


What are you looking at? The bird-walk leader has noticed our small band of stragglers, standing a ways back on the trail in classic birdwatcher pose, binoculars raised. I feel some pressure to respond. I am not only the straggler nearest to her, I am also the person who stopped this segment of our group (What’s that?) after spotting a bird-shaped lump on a distant saguaro cactus. Yet, ironically, I am the worst-equipped of those standing here to answer her question, perhaps the worst-equipped in the entire Metro Phoenix population of about four million. This is, after all, my first bird walk: ever, anywhere. Everyone else, though, is still occupied with something birdwatcherish (maybe identifying said avian; more likely determining whether it’s a juvenile, female, male, or male in breeding plumage) and, hence, silent. It’s up to me. I shrug, apologetically, and point, ineffectually. A bird. On a cactus.   

I’m not a complete birdbrain about birds, or so I like to think. I can identify a chicken pretty reliably at 50 paces and recognize the regular backyard birds — regular for where I come from, anyway: robins, magpies, blue jays, starlings, hummingbirds, and now cardinals. I know some waterbirds: seagulls, mallards, great blue herons. I notice raptors (hawks, bald eagles) and can usually tell a turkey vulture, although not much. I know our national icons: loons and the much-loved Canada goose. I have a vague sense of egrets, cormorants, and sandpipery thingies that scoot in and out of the tide, but that’s about as far as it goes. Distinguish species of hawk? Not a chance! Recognize birds outside my normal ambit? Forget it!

But I do like a walk in the desert, and today’s guided walk is focused on birds. So here I am, compact Bushnell’s in hand, looking at birds. On cactuses. Despite its inauspicious beginning, our two-hour amble in the Sonoran desert is a productive exercise on several fronts.

Before we are 30 minutes into our walk, I have had to rethink a long-standing perception about birdwatchers. Folks I have been gently amused by for decades turn out, in this small sample at least, to be humorous, interesting, and generous people, willing to share their extensive knowledge with an obvious neophyte (species name: Ignoramus avianus).

My corporate-promotional-item binoculars have revealed themselves as less than ideal tools for this activity. Something about their narrow field of view — which I don’t really get — and the almost complete impossibility of using them with my prescription sunglasses, which I do get, all too fuzzily.

I have been introduced to the Birdwatcher’s Approved List of Excuses for Failing to Identify. Leading this list is ‘backlighting’.  Apparently, birdwatchers can call a bird correctly (species and gender) from a mere glimpse of it on the wing at tens of metres, yet cannot distinguish between two similar species when the specimen is backlit. I have much the same problem, although at a more basic level. Yup, it’s a bird.

I have seen a four-inch tall saguaro cactus growing under an obliging palo verde tree. I have seen a kangaroo rat, swept aloft in a Harris’s hawk’s talons (Lunch, anyone?). Neither cactusette nor rat are birds, it’s true, but they are marvelous sights nonetheless. These birdwatchers seem to enjoy flora and other fauna as well.

I have seen (so they tell me) a great horned owl, phainopepla, cactus wren, curved bill thrasher, mourning dove, several Completely Indistinguishable sparrows that yet have numerous names, Costa’s and Anna’s hummingbirds, Harris’s hawk, and a partridge in a pear tree. Oops, no, that last was Gambel’s quail in a palo verde tree. I have heard — well, I’ve heard them identified — the call of said Gambel’s quail and the curved bill thrasher, and heard a phainopepla mimic another bird’s call, note-perfectly. Not knowing the call of either bird, I find that this wonder is sort of lost on me.

Indeed, much of the morning is lost on Ignoramus avianus: one needs some knowledge in an area to acquire more, else the flow of information just slips away, water running off a smooth surface. But some stuff sticks: not the identification skill, acquired only by doing, but the information, which can be acquired just by listening…

Birds mate earlier in the desert than in other places.

Hummingbird feathers have thousands of tiny prisms that refract light, producing their distinctive colour at the right viewing angle.

Verdins are the only North American birds that actually live in their nests outside breeding season.

Harris’s hawks work in family groups to raise their young.

House finches have been in North America for only 77 years, and are now damn near everywhere.

 That sort of thing.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have ventured into the preserve of true birdwatchers by starting not one but two life lists, posting numerous entries to both:

Birds Identified by People on My Walk but that Flitted Off Before I Could Even See Them

Birds Identified for Me Several Times by People on My Walk

 Ooh, categories. Why has no one ever told me about this aspect of birdwatching? I may have just found my sport.

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4 Responses to Birdwatchers & Birdbrains

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    Very well put Isabel.

    I am going to forward this to some birdwatchers who I know will get a kick of it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Even at my level (something less than beginner!), I am amazed by the knowledge these folks have. I bring in a sighting from my backyard (like, say, a yellow throat) unable to find anything online that looks right, and they identify it. They distinguish hawks by the shape or colour of their tails – at a distance at which about all I can do is say, Is that a hawk?

  2. Alison Uhrbach says:

    One of the things I miss most about now living in town is there are no birds in my back yard! I’m trying to attract them, but it will take time. When we lived in the country we fed and watched the birds daily. We had hummingbirds and golden finches, and occasionally orioles, lots of interesting sparrows, and robins of course. In the winter we had flickers, and several kinds of woodpeckers, and nuthatches. We loved watching them! One day a birdwatching friend came for a walk in our bush, and came back to tell us she identified 53 varieties of birds! what were WE missing?? who knows? I look forward to pursuing some bird watching in the future – or at least walking with someone who can point out birds to me.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Well, there’s always the bird walks at Usery Mountain Park (and many other locations, too, I presume). Once you start paying attention, it’s like anything – you see them everywhere! And, as you note, the diversity is wonderful, even if you don’t ‘see’ all 53 varieties.

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